Benedict Cumberbatch

  • Title character of PBS’s “Sherlock” since 2010.
  • Voice of dragon Smaug in three “Hobbit” films between 2012 and 2014.
  • Khan, the villain in 2013’s “Star Trek into Darkness.”
  • Alan Turing, mathematician who helped crack the Nazi Enigma Code, in 2014’s “The Imitation Game.”
  • Dr. Strange, sorcerer superhero in films set in the Marvel universe since 2016.

English actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who portrays them all, turns 43 on Friday.

Benedict is from Late Latin Benedictus, “blessed,” used as a name by early Christians. It became famous through St. Benedict of Nursia (480-550). As a young man, Benedict became a pious hermit near Subiaco, Italy. He attracted followers, becoming so admired that a jealous priest tried to kill him. A raven snatched poisoned bread out of his hands.

Benedict went on to write his Rule for monks, which became the main monastic code for western Europe. The Rule was cemented when the “second Benedict,” French monk St. Benedict of Aniane (750-851), reformed monasteries throughout Charlemagne’s empire. Over 100 Benedictine houses operate in the United States today.

Sixteen Popes have been named Benedict, the first reigning from 575-579. The name became popular in medieval England, though in everyday use it was usually pronounced “Bennett.” That’s why Bennett is a common surname, ranking 86th in the 2010 United States census.

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Benedict became rare in England after 1400. It wasn’t helped by the Reformation. Puritans in both England and America avoided non-Biblical saints’ names.

Benedict Arnold (1741-1801), the American revolutionary general who plotted to turn West Point over to the British, made “a Benedict Arnold” a synonym for “traitor” to Americans. It might then seem surprising that Benedict was actually 10 times more common in America during the 19th century. Only 94 Benedicts are listed in Britain’s 1851 census, while 1,068 are found in the 1850 United States census, when the total populations were equal.

The difference was because of Benedict’s use by German immigrants — 19% of America’s Benedicts in 1850 were born in Germany, compared with 2.5% of the total population.

Benedict remained a name appealing most to Roman Catholics. Its high point on Social Security’s yearly baby name lists came in 1914, when it ranked 447th. Pope Benedict XV was elected that year.

Benedict left the top thousand in 1969. Though it never disappeared, only around 50 Benedicts a year were born in America between 1969 and 2004.

Then in 2005, Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope after John Paul II’s death, taking the name Benedict XVI. The name tripled — 158 baby Benedicts arrived in 2005. There were also 14 named “John-Benedict,” the only year that’s ever shown up on the list.

Benedict’s strict conservatism was unpopular with younger American Catholics, and the name fell off again. Only 58 were born in 2011.

Cumberbatch’s fame was able to grow the name after Pope Benedict resigned in 2013. There were 209 Benedicts born in 2018, ranking it 981st, the first time in 50 years it made the top thousand.

Many people find the actor’s surname amusing. Cumberbatch (from an English place name meaning “Cumbra’s stream”) inspired website “The Benedict Cumberbatch Name Generator,” which creates names like “Bakery Crumplesack” and “Rinkydink Curdlesnoot.” If Cumberbatch’s career continues to soar, soon children who’ve always known him as a movie star will see both his names as completely normal.

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